There's a moment in Atomic Blonde—David Leitch's action-filled, Cold War–era spy thriller—when the camera lingers on a small color television tuned to MTV. A young Kurt Loder asks whether sampling in music is closer to art or plagiarism, and the scene is more than a self-referential wink at the audience.
Like the film's soundtrack, the scene acts as an intended stimulant for people of a certain age to feel good about themselves—either from our ability to get the joke, or our preexisting relationship with the source material. Scatter enough of these nuggets throughout a film, and you can have viewers buzzing from a curated high that has everything to with them and nothing to do with the story on the screen. This isn't a new development in film or television, but it seems an increasing number of cinematic releases are asking themselves the following question: Do audiences want a movie or a mixtape?
Several of this summer's action-driven films resemble a visual playlist: Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is essentially a two-hour music video serving as a testament to beat markers, and Atomic Blonde is essentially a two-hour soundtrack invested in finding creative diegetic sources for its songs. Both films have stoic leads whom we know little about other than that they're exceptional at what they do.
But while a love of music is the one fundamental characteristic attributed to the former's hero, Atomic Blonde's Lorraine Broughton, played by Charlize Theron, is a blank slate. As an MI6 secret agent, Theron's as effusive as oatmeal, which is partially the point: The actress was adamant about creating a female action hero absent of any gendered expectations. If James Bond doesn't need to justify himself or appeal to viewers' emotional sensibilities, neither does Lorraine Broughton. She punches who she needs to, sleeps with whom she wants, and if you're looking for the reasons behind either, tough luck. "You don't need to be emotionally manipulated to feel something for someone," Theron told Variety about her character's lack of backstory or willingness to emote.
That might be true, but only if there are grounding elements to humanize an otherwise robotic character. Typically, this is code for "class" and "world-building," which the latest iteration of the Bond franchise hinges on. You can be a sexy, expressionless killer, but you'd better have the opulence to back it up.
The nature of Atomic Blonde's plot robs it of that luxury. This is 1989 Berlin, and it looks it. There's little to no underground world-building or advanced weaponry; instead, the film pulses between perpetually overcast streets of grime and want. Theron might drape herself in spectacular dresses, coats, and stilettos (her makeup and platinum hair is impeccable), but there's no elegance to her surroundings. On a macro level, Broughton's a gold coin thrown through a pile of ash. And while this particular limitation isn't anyone's fault—budget considerations are budget considerations—they're there nonetheless.
What all this amounts to is a film that's all style, no substance—what's more, a style devoid of any grandeur that makes Atomic Blonde feel like a thriller with a passing interest in action, rather than an action film interested in delivering thrills. And given Theron and Leitch's respective backgrounds, it's difficult not to crave the latter; the length and choreography of the fight sequences are isolated triumphs in this scattered film. By the end of the movie, rooting for Theron feels as empty as wondering how long a soap bubble can float across a lawn before it pops.
Not that it matters: The entirety of Atomic Blonde is told through flashbacks, removing the only thing that makes Lorraine Broughton human in the absence of the aforementioned—the threat of death. We know that no matter what they throw at her, she will survive. So why not throw everything?
More important: At what point am I simply watching a male gaze that has managed to pass by selling itself as a form of empowerment? Where's the line between authentic fighting and watching women repeatedly bludgeoned or killed by men? Part of me wonders if the film could have worked with a black lead—not as a question of diversity but one of abuse. Could audiences have watched the violence inflicted on Theron if it was happening to a black woman? Strength in and of itself typically isn't a character but a character trait. Yet if it's packaged and sold into one—as with Atomic Blonde, as well as Taraji P. Henson's upcoming Proud Mary—who's the violence against it for, and to what extent can it resemble actual violence against women without appearing to glorify it?
Jackie Chan's famous use of found objects as weapons was as much about humor as skill. In Atomic Blonde, the found objects used by Theron are unquestionably a very real and desperate means of survival. A scene where Theron, in heels, attempts to fend off an attacker in the dark with a pair of keys between her knuckles isn't a hypothetical but a lived reality for countless women. Another scene, where Theron's love interest Delphine (Sofia Boutella) flails for a piece of glass to stab an intruder after he breaks into her home, is far from a stretch of the imagination.
Nevertheless, there's fun to be had in Atomic Blonde: Theron is genuinely phenomenal, and the fight sequence in the stairwell is more than enough to recommend the film to any action fan. But Theron's desire for a heroine who doesn't need to explain herself lives in a movie that doesn't realizes it, as a form of narrative storytelling, does. Both parties—the character and the story—have to show up for the film. Keanu Reeves was enough to make John Wick the character turn John Wick the movie into something outstanding. How someone feels about Atomic Blonde will depend on how comfortable they are with Charlize Theron being enough to make Lorraine Broughton the character in a film that, for most of its run time, fails to live up to either.
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